Magic, like many of the arts, seems to ebb and flow through our culture with its impact and essence growing and shrinking in importance from year to year. Of course, magic probably does far more of the latter. There was a brief resurgence a few years ago with the likes of David Blaine and Criss Angel, but both men quickly became well-deserved punchlines, leaving magic to hole up in the last place on Earth that still sees it as, well, magical.
But outside of Las Vegas?
Ricky Jay is one of a very select few who’ve not only made a living from their magic-related interests but also found success beyond the stage. (Penn & Teller are two more, but after that I’m stumped unless you count David Copperfield’s brief foray into acting with Terror Train. Which you shouldn’t.) Jay’s incredible sleight-of-hand skills, fascination with history, sharp sense of humor and distinctive voice have kept him working, educating and entertaining us for decades. A new doc offers a glimpse up Jay’s metaphorical shirt sleeves for a better look at what makes him tick, but unfortunately it does so by pointing the camera outwards.
Jay was essentially a professional magician by the age of seven, having matched his grandfather’s interest and enthusiasm with his own. The old man would pick a subject, find pros in the field to teach him and then move on to something else, but he found an obsession in magic that was passed on to his grandson. Jay found early success on talk shows including Dinah Shore and The Tonight Show, and his skill at throwing cards (hard and fast enough to pierce the thick skin of a watermelon) quickly became his most memorable shtick. His personality soon outgrew that singular attraction, though, and he found himself (and his distinctive voice) in demand on the screen.
A small role in David Mamet’s excellent House of Games, tailor-suited to Jay’s mastery of card deception, led to roles not only in later Mamet films but also in movies from Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and Rian Johnson as well as appearances on series as diverse as The X-Files and Deadwood. (Hell, he was even a Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies.) Through it all he’s shown a continued mastery of card trickery and a never-ending thirst for historical knowledge on the magical arts, and to this day he remains a fascinating speaker and performer.
So why is Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein’s new documentary, Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay, anything less than fantastic?
The short answer is that like Jay himself, the film seems most interested in looking beyond the man to the people and events that came before. The “mentors” of the title are a long litany of performers and magicians who Jay studied and in many cases met on his own road to magic, and much of the film’s run time (a brisk 88 minutes) is given to anecdotes and facts about those predecessors. It’s not that men like Al Flosso, Charlie Miller and Slydini aren’t of interest in their own right, but the brief time given to each of them serves only as a primer on magicians and sleight-of-hand artists of the 20th century. Some fun bits are shared, but they’re not the men whose show we’ve paid to see.
The film works best when Jay is talking, sharing and offering a dangerous smile as he recounts his own past including a recitation of a poem reportedly written for him by Shel Silverstein concerning a dead man, playing cards and a locked room mystery. He talks about running away to NYC at the age of 17, doing shows sandwiched in between Timothy Leary and Ike & Tina Turner and more, and they tease a biography just begging to be brought to the screen. Almost as engaging are the joy-filled testimonials of acquaintances who still recall the times where Jay truly amazed them under less than ideal circumstances including a retired L.A. sheriff’s recounting of a money trick he made Jay repeat stark-naked in the shower.
We also get some footage of past appearances by Jay including one very memorable Dinah Shore show that saw him guesting with Steve Martin (and an unamused Shaun Cassidy). Scenes like these enhance Jay’s already whimsically addicting persona and remind us that his sly, knowing smile has been with him from very early on. While his public life is on display he makes a point of glossing over his troubled relationship with his parents. As with explanations regarding how the magic is accomplished we don’t need to know the details behind his drama, but the answer isn’t to move the focus from him all together. Although it’s worth remembering that Jay is a master at misdirection.
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay offers up an imbalanced look at the man’s mysteries and mentors, and while no one’s expecting Jay to give away the magic, the film would have benefited from some showmanship of its own.
The Upside: Ricky Jay is a fascinating guy; some classic illusions and tricks that still manage to instill wonder; funny anecdotes
The Downside: Too much time spent focusing on the “mentors”; Jay’s own life is glossed over a bit too much
On the Side: You can learn almost as much about Ricky Jay from his Top 10 Criterion releases list than you can from this doc.